Touring Decay: Nineteenth-Century American Travel Writers in Europe

By Melton, Jeffrey Alan | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Touring Decay: Nineteenth-Century American Travel Writers in Europe


Melton, Jeffrey Alan, Papers on Language & Literature


If Ralph Waldo Emerson provided one of the strongest declarations of intellectual independence from Europe in the "American Scholar" (1837), many American writers followed by exploiting the most pervasive and effective popular-culture weapon for the ensuing war-the travel book. No other genre of American literature enjoyed a greater popularity or a more enduring prominence in the nineteenth century than travel writing, a form which has been essentially intertwined with the development of America's literary heritage from its beginnings. However, few scholars have recognized the impact travel writing had on the readers and writers of the 1800's. By underestimating, or ignoring altogether, the influence of the travel book on nineteenth-century readers, we have excluded from our consideration a vital, informative source for understanding the self-images of a mass-reading public, a source which has as a major paradigm the proud American anxiously touring Europe only to find a culture largely in decay and a society besieged by corruption.1

However, in addition to being historically valuable, travel literature also raises various issues. In fact, such writing is relevant to many recent theoretical debates. It bears, for instance, on the relation between the Self and the Other-on the ways selves are defined by their differences and/or distances from "others." In this case the issue is particularly intriguing, since the "other" marginalized by many American travel writers is a supposedly "superior" culture, the culture of Old Europe. Just as children must define themselves by both their links to and separateness from their parents, so the same might be said of American travel literature of the nineteenth century. Indeed, such writing exhibits a wealth of psychological, sociological, and political complexities, in part because travel writing as a genre is undeniably embedded in a complex historical matrix. In travel writing the relations between "text" and "context" (so central to much recent theory) cry out for analysis. Travel writing provides a particularly effective illustration of the new historicist dictum that every text is also a social act, caught in a complex web of power and authority.

Indeed, travel writing raises the issue of "authority" in yet another way, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that this kind of writing might seem extraordinarily mimetic. In travel writing, that is, "reality" would seem to dictate the creation of the text: travel writers function, on one level, as reporters whose responses are, in a sense, pre-scribed by the things they attempt to de-scribe. Yet the real relations between things and words are, of course, never quite so simple, and one of the particularly fascinating aspects of travel literature is the way in which its texts tend to be shaped not so much by "reality" as by other, pre-existing texts. Travel writing provides an especially stunning example of the ways genres, conventions, and paradigms condition any view of the world, preventing (i.e., coming-before) any such thing as an "innocent eye." Ironically, Mark Twain's claim, for example, in the Preface of The Innocents Abroad (1869) that he attempts "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of those who travelled in those countries before him" ([5]) not only follows convention established by those who traveled before Twain but also, as the balance of his text bears out, depends on readers' awareness of such conventions. Likewise, travel writing illustrates, to a remarkable degree, how the act of viewing the "other" always reveals much about oneself, how the act of perceiving can illuminate the perceiver (and the whole process of perception) as much as the thing perceived.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the interest in travel literature had become a passion. In the May 1844 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Henry Tuckerman notes, "Our times might not inaptly be designated as the age of travelling. …

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